Witch, from evil creature to feminist icon

She was the last of the Salem witches…unpardoned. His name was lost in the limbo of History. It was college students who took him out. Single without children, Elizabeth Johnson was 22 when she was denounced as a witch and sentenced to hang. Without being acquitted, she escaped the gallows after the royal governor of the State of Massachusetts, a certain William Phips, put an end to the almost general hysteria which seized, at the end of the XVIIe century, this part of New England.

A “sinner” examined during her trial, a “creature” necessarily insensitive to pain since protected by the devil. The powerful wave of misogynism peaked in Europe in the 17the century.

Last May, Elizabeth Johnson was finally rehabilitated by the Senate of that same state, three hundred and twenty-nine years after her conviction. During a search for the famous “witches of Salem”, schoolboys from North Andover discovered her name, a year earlier. They therefore continued to plead his case with the elected officials of the State, who took the matter in hand, as an end to the movement of truth and rehabilitation concerning this stain – one more – in the United States history. Within months, 20 people from Salem and surrounding villages had been killed (19 by hanging and one by stoning) and hundreds charged during a major Puritan crisis.

Theocrats lead the hunt

We are in 1692. Seventy-two years earlier, aboard the “Mayflower”, the “pilgrim fathers” landed in Plymouth, about a hundred kilometers south of Salem. Persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, they crossed the Atlantic to find a “new Jerusalem” and to establish the kingdom of God there on earth. They are puritans. Their presence has only one goal: to establish a theocracy. As the century draws to a close, the young colony is still only an English enclave in Indian territory but too far from its mother house to be protected.

It all started with guessing games by the daughter and niece – aged 9 and 11 respectively – of the Reverend Samuel Parris. During a session, one of the two girls claims to have had the vision of a spectrum, accompanied by anxiety and gasping. A doctor diagnoses satanic possession. Other “cases” of little girls suffering from convulsions and language disorders are added. Pressed by the adults, they avoid saying that they have themselves indulged in what may be considered witchcraft and, for fear of contravening the Christian norm of the community, give the names of three women: a beggar, an old bedridden woman and the pastor’s Barbadian slave…

The Republican Party and the “Evangelical Bloc”

The mechanics are on. Arrests are increasing but without any legal legitimacy, a void that the governor fills by instituting an ad hoc court. The latter condemns to the chain, only avoiding the death for those who confess. Elizabeth Short, convicted while pregnant, is hanged shortly after giving birth. Fourteen women – almost all of them old and poor – are murdered, along with five men: a respected minister, a former policeman who refused to arrest any more alleged witches, and three people of some fortune. The micro-community is emptied of its inhabitants unjustly accused or frightened of being so. No doubt this is what forces the governor to stop the collective delirium.

Salem’s witchcraft was the rock on which theocracy was shattered. George Lincoln Burr, historian

Historians still argue about the origin of this dark episode – from ergotism (badly caused by ergot, which contains a substance similar to LSD) to the collective hallucination of a community locked in Puritanism. In any case, according to historian George Lincoln Burr, “the witchcraft of Salem was the rock on which theocracy was shattered”. When the United States merges, they establish, according to the formula of Thomas Jefferson, writer of the declaration of independence, a “wall of separation”… that the “evangelical bloc” and the Republican Party, with their armed wing, s strive today to bring down, shouting, at the first resistance, to… the “witch hunt”!

In Europe, the first movements towards a rehabilitation of witches persecuted in the name of humanism and science in the midst of the Renaissance emanated from the peripheries, or from stateless nations such as Catalonia and Scotland. In both cases, it was the left-wing separatist formations in power that put the subject back on the table last year.


On the table of the Scottish Parliament

In Edinburgh, where the authorities in 1563, three years after espousing Protestantism, enacted a law triggering a particularly bloody witch hunt – nearly 4,000 women, the overwhelming majority of them, had been prosecuted, tortured and, for a largely executed – the general principle of a pardon is now under consideration in the Scottish Parliament. Natalie Don, Scottish National Party (SNP) MP for Holyrood – the name of the local assembly – and promoter of the bill, said failure to finally bring justice to these thousands of people would only “prolong an ancestral misogyny”. Several pieces of legislation of the same ilk have already come up against a most reactionary veto in the early 2000s. But the direction of history has turned, it seems.

Last spring, Scottish independence First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took the lead in issuing a “formal apology” to anyone who may have been harmed through the “deep misogyny” that inspired the witch-hunt law. “The only way to move forward against the patriarchy is to repair once and for all these injustices of our past, adds Natalie Don. Most women were targeted because they were a little different, poor or shunned. These days, even though their characteristics may not be the same as they were then, we still see that when women seek to be different or independent, it drives men into a rage. »

Icon QuoteThey used to call us witches, now they talk about us as “feminazis”, hysterical, frustrated or “badly fucked”. Jenn Diaz, feminist journalist and member of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC)

Solemn resolution in Catalonia

Initially inspired by the campaign initiated by Scottish feminists, brought together in the collective Witches of Scotland (Witches of Scotland), the Catalan parliamentarians were faster than their counterparts in Edinburgh and Glasgow. On January 26, a large majority of deputies members of the regional assembly adopted a resolution aimed at rehabilitating the memory of more than 700 women tortured and put to death as witches. “They used to call us witches, now they talk about us as ‘feminazis’, hysterical, frustrated or ‘badly fucked'”, denounces Jenn Diaz, feminist journalist and deputy of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) at the origin of the Catalan legislative text. The witch hunts they conducted have a different name today. They are called feminicides. »

In Mexico, 10 feminicides are committed every day and, on July 22, a feminist activist was burned alive. © Michelle Freyria / Reuters

According to “Sapiens”, a scientific journal which, together with the research of the historian Pau Castell, served as the basis for the presentation of the reasons for the resolution passed by the local assembly, Catalonia was one of the first regions of Europe where anti-witchcraft acts took place, from 1471. It is also considered one of the regions where the largest number of executions of women accused of being witches took place. “The accusations against us have not disappeared in the 21ste century, continues Jenn Diaz. They have adapted to the climate, to the environment. To call us witches is only to legitimize a discourse that wants to see docile, beautiful and silent women… And if we refuse to keep quiet, they want to make us pay dearly for it. Today’s pyres will have a different shape depending on where you were born, but they are the same. What has changed in this case is us, the descendants, the heirs of witches and healers. We are no longer isolated and we are organized. »

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Witch, from evil creature to feminist icon

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